Graeme Jones: Newcastle United’s caretaker manager who played for Doncaster Rovers and Bridlington Town
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It has been some story for former Doncaster Rovers striker Graeme Jones, regarded as one of the sharpest brains in football and now aiming to do his bit to plot the tactical downfall of Germany in Tuesday night’s last-16 meeting at Wembley.
Those who have worked with him along the way, including Russ Wilcox, his one-time captain at Doncaster Rovers in the early to mid Nineties, can fully appreciate the journey in particular.
Former York City manager Wilcox told The Yorkshire Post: “It’s an incredible story. It was a shock when I saw he had gone to England on Sky Sports News and I just said: ‘Jesus wept.’
“I dropped him a text and said: ‘From Bridlington Town to England – not a bad move that is it?’
“We have a bit of banter and drop the odd text to make sure families are okay and we used to get on well as families when we were both at Rovers before football takes you to various parts of the country.”
Released by Millwall at 18, Jones moved back to his native north-east to play in non-league circles for Newcastle Blue Star and North Shields – while working as an insulation engineer and then, briefly, as a postman.
He then moved to Bridlington where he was part of the side who won the FA Vase in 1993 before getting his second chance in the professional game at Rovers.
The Geordie later linked up with Roberto Martinez at Wigan and the pair would successfully reunite after their playing days were over at Swansea before returning to Lancashire.
Jones then assisted his great friend at Everton before later sampling his first taste of international football as assistant manager at Belgium, whom Martinez still manages.
If the Red Devils meet England in the final, it would be some occasion for the pair. Best of friends, but best of enemies for one day.
In his days at Rovers, Jones was part of a line-up who really should have been promoted out of the fourth tier during his time there – before off-the-field problems saw a stack of players leave, including the north-easterner.
The coaching acumen of Steve Beaglehole, who took Rovers’ youth team to the FA Youth Cup final in 1988 before later stepping up and then working with a vastly-experienced figure in Sammy Chung, will have at least planted a few seeds in the mind of Jones ahead of his later career.
Wilcox added: “People talk about the game tactically and how it has moved on, but we were playing a diamond under Sammy in 1994. We had Dave Roche at the base, Sean Parrish on the left and Jamie Lawrence on the right and then we had Brabs (Gary Brabin) at the top of the diamond and then Graeme and Steve Harper.
“We had a really good side and I felt sorry for Steve and Sammy Chung, who were both really good coaches and good people.”
Character and talent was prevalent in equal measure in that Doncaster squad of the first half of the Nineties, with Jones one of several players who had come up the hard way from non-league ranks after initial rejection.
It fuelled his determination to make the most of his second opportunity and alongside the hunger, Jones was wise to the need to toughen up against hard lower-league professionals for whom win bonuses meant everything.
He did that and that fierce work ethic and desire for continued self-improvement is now continuing in the coaching realm.
Wilcox said: “You could be a little bit more aggressive then as centre-forwards and centre-halves and I remember one game against Chesterfield where Nicky Law was trying to rough Graeme up and he ended up with a bit of a cut above his eye that day.
“Graeme changed his game by getting bigger and stronger and turned himself into more of a target man than a runner. Because when he first came, he was quick and ran the channels even though he was slight. He worked it out that he also had to get stronger and got himself in the gym and looked the part.
“He showed good desire to go on and have a good career – a bit like a few of us. When you do get that second chance – not everybody takes it, but you are a bit more hungry as you get cast aside from your first opportunity.”